Sincronía Invierno 2004

The curse and paradox of being a native and non-native language teacher

Xochitl Soriano

Universidad de Guadalajara

It is very interesting for me to reflect on a very controversial issue. The one of who is a better or worse language teacher: the native speaker or the non-native. It is controversial because experts do not seem to agree who on the subject, since both have unique characteristics that seem to complement each other in this fascinating and complex world of language teaching. For me, it is even more controversial because I happen to be both. On the one hand, I am a native speaker of Spanish, and I have taught it as a foreign language in an American university. On the other, I have been a non-native teacher of English as a foreign language for over 10 years in Mexico. This characteristic gives me the unique opportunity to advocate for either side, depending on which language I teach. In this paper, I will revise the topic of the native speaker and the ownership of language. I will also discuss some characteristics of native and non-native language teachers have and share, and how being both a Native Speaker teacher of Spanish and a Non-native Speaker teacher of English has benefited and denied me opportunities to work.

Who is a native speaker?

The world, as it is composed nowadays, is a mosaic of multicultural and multilingual individuals and societies, which makes it hard to determine who is a native speaker of a language. For the purpose of this paper, I will define a native speaker as the person who speaks the target language from birth. In other words, the one who acquired the language as a child, giving some individuals the advantage of being a native speaker of two or more languages (Rampton, 1990; Widdowson, 1994; Kramsch, 1997; Cook, 1999). The non-native speakers are those individuals who learn the target language after they have acquired their mother tongue(s). This includes immigrant children who might have a native-like command of the target language, but it was not the first language they were exposed to. In my case, I was born in Mexico, where Spanish is the official language; therefore, Spanish is my L1 (native language). I started learning English when I was around 12 years old, and although English is taught as a foreign language in Mexico, it is my L2 (second language). I consider myself a fortunate individual because I am literate in both languages, which gives me an advantage over some of my colleges who are literate monolinguals either in English or Spanish, and sometimes their command of their second language is not as good as mine. When it comes to language teaching, not all the native speaker language varieties are privileged, and therefore, not taught. The question is, should they be taught?

When discussing which variety of the target language is the most acceptable Widdowson (1994) and Kramsch (1997) argue that typically the standard variety of the language which is spoken by a predominately educated white middle-class male elite is the norm and the only acceptable form of the language to be taught and acquired by individuals. This distinction makes it clear that not all native speakers (NSs) language varieties are privileged. Being a part of the elite, gives some NSs the right to decide which is the best way and how to teach their variety of the target language (Widdowson, 1992; 1994). It is true that they are the ones who decide what is acceptable with respect to the language, but that does not mean that what they say is the best way to teach or learn or that it is the most suitable for all individuals and all contexts (Phillipson, 1992). Unfortunately, the privileging of some language varieties is a widespread belief and attitude supported even by target language learners, governments, and educators of the countries where the target language is taught either as a second or foreign language (Kramsch, 1997; Phillipson, 1992; Widdowson, 1992,1994).

An interesting factor is that in many of those countries, any native speaker, even those whose language variety is not a privileged one in their country of origin, is considered to have more to offer than the successful non-native speakers of the target language just for the mere fact that they are considered NS (Rampton, 1990; Phillipson, 1992; Widdowson, 1992 & 1994). This is what I have experienced as both NS and NNS.

As a NS, the fact that Spanish is my L1 gave me the opportunity to obtain a Teaching Assistantship in the Spanish department at the University of Washington last summer. This, without having any previous experience in teaching Spanish or training to teach it.

On the contrary, in Mexico, the fact that I am a NNS of English denied me the opportunity to teach in some schools where the norm is to only hire NSs of English. They do not care whether their teachers are qualified to teach or not, nor the fact that the language variety they speak might not be considered privileged in their country of origin. The most important fact is that they are NSs.

This is something unfair for NNSs (non-native speakers); because researchers in second language acquisition, and elites in the power compare their achievements against NS standards, not taking into account that they are two completely different groups with different characteristics and needs (Cook, 1999; Kramsch, 1997; Medgyes, 1992; Phillipson, 1992; Rampton, 1990; Widdowson, 1992 & 1994). When I applied for a TA position in the ESL department, the result was not the same as in the Spanish one. In order for me to get a TA position, I had to take a test of spoken English, where I was recorded, and the tape was sent to be evaluated by the ESL department. The scale they used to evaluate my performance was based on what NSs are supposed to say.

Who is better?

The believe that the native speaker is a better teacher and the most suitable role model is so widespread that is seems very hard to eradicate, but not impossible. The fact that they have a high command of the target language does not automatically prepare them teach it. These NSs have communicative competence and can identify something that is wrong when they hear or read it, but might have no idea of why this is so (Kramsch, 1997; Phillipson, 1992; Widdowson, 1994). Due to the fact that I have studied English for over 15 years, and that I have professional training as an English language teacher, I believe I am better qualified to teach English than Spanish. I can provide my students with clear grammar explanations of the English language; however, I cannot do the same in Spanish. I can identify when something is wrong, but I might not know exactly why.

Grammatical competence is one of the areas where NNSTs (non-native speaker teachers) seem to be stronger than their unqualified NSTs (native speaker teachers) counterparts (Arva & Medgyes, 2000; Cook, 1999; Medgyes, 1992; McNeil, 1994; Phillipson, 1992; Reves & Medgyes, 1994; Serdikov & Tamopolsky, 1999; Widdwoson, 1992). The fact that they have gone through the process of learning the target language provides them with the knowledge not only of the TL grammar, but of learning strategies. This last three months I taught English grammar to NNS students as part of the requirements in my graduate studies. Since I have taught English grammar for a long time, it was easy for me to provide my students with simple explanations; whereas sometimes my master teacher struggled to find the simple words. He is a NS.

Another advantage that NNSTs have, is that in countries where the TL is taught as a foreign language, they share the same L1 with their students. This helps NNSTs foresee language structures that could be problematic for their students to understand. In the same way, they can make use of students’ L1 to provide clarification as well as use examples of the mother tongue to contrast its structure with the TL one. This causes NNSTs to teach more grammar classes. (Arva & Medgyes, 2000; Cook, 1999; Medgyes, 1992; McNeil, 1994; Phillipson, 1992; Reves & Medgyes, 1994; Serdikov & Tamopolsky, 1999; Widdowson, 1992).

On the other hand, NSTs have the advantage of having the cultural, phonetic, lexical and usage knowledge of the TL. Widdowson (1994) claims that the role of NSTs is more as an informant than as an instructor. When I taught Spanish last summer, my students told me that they were glad they had a NS as teacher because I provided them with cultural knowledge that a NNST would never have. In this case, I was an informant. This also reflects when NSTs find mistakes in textbooks. They provide the "correct" information or raise awareness in their students.

In a study carried our by Arva & Medgyes (2000), one NST participant claimed that he had nothing to teach to his students. They also found that NSTs are preferred for teaching conversation and advanced grammar classes where NNSTs fail to succeed. NSTs are also perceived to have a more relaxed attitude in class. In the same study, NSTs were reported to have a wider variety of activities in class not based mainly in the textbooks. They used newspapers and magazine articles, to provide students with a more realistic version of the TL than the textbook version.

It is important to notice that despite the fact that the NS is still considered the language model to emulate, the politics in many countries view the perfect model of the target language teacher is the one who has "near-native-speaker proficiency in the [target] language, and comes from the same linguistic and cultural background as the learners" (Phillipson, 1992: 15). Of course, this model teacher is supposed to have good training in the teaching of the target language. The same would apply for NSTs, especially if they have a knowledge of their students’ L1. The experience of being language learners themselves, gives NSTs of the target language a different perspective than that of the NSs who do not care to learn the language of their students, keeping themselves from enriching their own lives and understanding the needs and difficulties their students go through when acquiring a second language (Widdowson, 1994).

In this respect, Kramsch (1997) and Widdowson (1994) agree when they claim that monolingual individuals miss the privilege of becoming, to a certain extent, a member of the culture they teach their L1, through the learning of their students’ L1.

I have experience this with some of my colleges in Mexico. Some of them believe that they do not need to learn a lot of Spanish, but the necessary to communicate and survive.

Sometimes, students complain when the teacher does not speak Spanish and therefore cannot provide them with accurate grammar or usage explanations.


Research has proved that both native and non-native speakers of the target language have their own strengths and handicaps. Widdowson (1992) states that the main difference between both groups is that "[NSs] obviously have the more extensive experience as [target] language users, the [NNSs] have had experience as [target] language learners" (p. 338). Both complement each other in the process of teaching the TL to students. In my experience, my training background as an English teacher helped me succeed when I taught Spanish since I used some of the techniques and exercises from English and modified them to teach Spanish. Also, my high command of English helped me switch into English when I grammatical explanations were needed. The same happens when teaching in Mexico. I can easily switch from one language to another.

The irony is that depending on what language I teach, sometimes I tend to favor one of the positions more. For instance, when I teach English, I find it difficult not to feel offended when my ability to teach English is questioned by my command of the language. Once, I asked a professor advice on my possibilities to teach ESL in the USA, this professor told me I had no chance; however, later on the same day, we talked about some concerns I had about my language proficiency and some reactions from my peers. This time, the professor told me that my command of English was so good that it could be that my classmates may at times forget that I was a NNS. At that time, I felt insulted. I thought he was just trying to make me feel ok. Now, I find this to be true to some extent; when I have talked to NNSs of Spanish and their command is so good that I start talking as if the person were a NS. Sometimes, they have asked me to talk slowly or they just switch into English. The same has happened when I talk to students who are not proficient in either language. If I do not understand what they are saying in the TL or they seem confused, either of us switches back to the language they feel more comfortable with.

Therefore, it is difficult for me to take a position. Both teachers have strong and weak qualities. Where one fails to provide, the other completes the missing part of the complicated but fascinating phenomenon of language learning. The key element is having teaching training.



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Kramsch, C. (1997). The Privilege of the Nonnative Speaker. Publications of the Modern  Language Association of America 112(3), 359-369.

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